1 – #MeToo hits home

The Reporter’s investigation into what began as undisclosed allegations against a municipal employee led to a steady leak of information over the course of 2018’s first few months, culminating with a public records lawsuit from selectwoman Irene Wrenner, who said she was subjected to sexual harassment from the employee.

According to public records, the claims trace back to an October 2017 email in which a complainant told an undisclosed party, since identified as Wrenner, that at least two women were subjected to the town official’s “abusive” behavior. All names were redacted.

In January, we learned the town hired a private investigator to look into the claims, and the municipality would rack up more than $11,000 in legal fees while never mentioning the matter publicly. The investigator eventually shared a report of his findings, but it’s unclear who in town ever saw that report.

To date, the only confirmed party to read that report is town attorney Bill Ellis and his colleagues. Ellis ruled the alleged behavior detailed in the report did not rise to a level that violated policy, and therefore warranted no discipline from the town.

“Taking all facts you allege as true,” Ellis wrote to Wrenner, “they are insufficient to establish that [redacted] sexually harassed you.”

Wrenner told The Reporter in June she believes the alleged conduct defied multiple clauses in the town’s sexual harassment policy. She said she’s seeking the report to understand the investigative process and ensure Burgess accurately captured her testimony.

“What we’ve all seen is nothing changes and that people continue to get away with unacceptable behavior because there’s this code of silence,” she said, explaining why she came forward. “I don’t want to be part of the code of silence that allows this to continue.”

Original Stories: https://www.essexreporter.com/investigation-details-under-wraps/https://www.essexreporter.com/town-hired-private-investigator-shelled-10k-legal-fees/; https://www.essexreporter.com/wrenner-sues-town-over-sexual-harassment-records/; https://www.essexreporter.com/town-responds-to-wrenners-lawsuit/

2 – Town targets shooting ordinance

The town hired a facilitator who hosted a handful of meetings and forums this year as part of a robust public outreach campaign seeking feedback on potential changes to the town’s firearms discharge ordinance.

It’s not the first time the selectboard has considered beefing up its shooting ordinance, and the board still has to host several public hearings before it can decide whether to revise the rules. But discussions at recent meetings suggest the board is significantly closer to implementing some revisions.The proposal allows gun owners to discharge firearms at Indian Brook and Saxon Hill parks from November 1 to December 15; nixes a 500-foot buffer around the parks that would have extended onto private property; and leaves the so-called blue zone – a large swath of private land in the northern part of town – untouched, while shooting at the Essex Tree Farm would be banned year-round.

The board also decided to lump shooting ranges into its revisions, pointing to some who say the danger and noise posed by backyard shooting dwarfs that of hunting.

At a meeting last month, chairman Max Levy offered a proposal that would require anyone with a backyard shooting range to obtain a permit through the selectboard. The process would give the town at least some control over a practice that, as of now, has virtually no municipal oversight. Under Levy’s proposal, residents would need to offer a sketch of their property, including all buildings within a yet-to-be-determined distance, and outline expected hours of operation. Requesters would then have to present that information at a selectboard meeting, and town staff would alert all abutting neighbors and business so they have a chance to speak prior to any decision. Reaction at public meetings has varied, though the majority of forum attendees are hunters or shooters who vehemently opposed added regulations.

The selectboard agreed to bench the topic until after budget season.

Original Stories: https://www.essexreporter.com/town-planning-forums-firearms-ordinance/https://www.essexreporter.com/outreach-campaign-for-firearms-ordinance-underway/https://www.essexreporter.com/selectboard-nears-decision-on-firearms-ordinance/https://www.essexreporter.com/selectboard-leans-toward-limited-ordinance-changes/https://www.essexreporter.com/letters-to-the-editor-discharge-of-firearms-ordinance/https://www.essexreporter.com/letters-to-the-editor-discharge-of-firearms-ordinance-2/https://www.essexreporter.com/selectboard-to-consider-shooting-ranges-in-firearms-ordinance-discussions/https://www.essexreporter.com/selectboard-considers-shooting-range-permits/https://www.essexreporter.com/seeking-common-ground/

3 – Busing, busing, busing

Transportation remained a major story in 2018 as part of the Essex Westford School District’s continued struggles to fully service all of its students.

The district went to great lengths to entice residents and surrounding community members to apply by increasing starting wages to $20 per hour, adding flexibility for drivers to choose morning or afternoon shifts and offering paid training, sign-on and referral bonuses.

But past difficulties hiring bus drivers persisted through the summer, prompting EWSD administrators to announce in August that fewer students than initially planned would receive transportation.

To date, only Essex Elementary, Founders Memorial, Essex Middle School and Essex Town students who attend the high school have busing provided by Mountain Transit, while EHS village students has no busing. Instead, EHS students can access Green Mountain Transit route No. 2 in Essex Jct. and No. 4 in Essex Center for free to travel to and from school and school-related events Monday through Saturday. And the district has continued to fund all existing crossing guard positions to keep pedestrian infrastructure and continue encouraging walking to school.

The first day of school drew mixed reviews from parents. Some said their child got to school without a hitch, while others said their children waited at a community stop for more than 30 minutes for a bus that never came. The district manned a call center a call center for the first few days of school to assist with specific questions and concerns.

The ongoing driver shortage, meanwhile, prompted the school board this fall to create a new transportation plan that serves as a de-facto contingency plan if the shortage continues. Among the biggest questions: Who should benefit when new buses come on board?

Under the new draft policy, transportation is instead defined as a “privilege” – not required or mandated for “most students.” It codifies previous decisions, like the creation of walking zones, and permits administrators to establish which students can be served by either public transportation or congregated bus stops.

Board members also recently learned the status of their current transportation workforce. According to chief operating officer Brian Donahue, the district has lost and gained five drivers since the start of the fiscal year to hold steady at 18, while six more are working their way through the pipeline. That would bring the district to 24, which Donahue said would allow the district to expand busing into the village.

One bus driver is licensed but currently working as bus aides to learn the routes and get to know the district bus system. There are four potential drivers working through the licensing process and about to begin to tentatively bring busing to the Junction by late January/early February, but EWSD administrators note factors like early drop-outs and failed tests that continue to challenge the hiring process.

Original Stories: https://www.essexreporter.com/?s=busing

4 – Parents sue district over hazing

In June, The Reporter detailed a still pending lawsuit against the Essex Westford School District filed by parents of a former Essex High School student, who allege the district failed to protect their son from months of bullying, hazing and assault by a hockey teammate.

Court documents say the incidents occurred between November 2015 and February 2016 and ranged from verbal put-downs and unfair treatment to physical assaults and sexual harassment.

Administrators started an investigation that February after educators from another high school shared concerns about the team. But the complaint alleges the high school knew about the misconduct as early as December 2015 – when the victim spoke to a team captain – and says the district could have foreseen it given the boys hockey team’s history of inappropriate behavior.

An internal investigation by high school administrators found the accused student violated school policies on bullying, hazing and harassment. In letters to the victim’s parents, principal Rob Reardon said he couldn’t discuss any specific disciplinary action, but he assured the school was taking “reasonable steps” to prevent future misconduct and to “remedy its effects” on their son.

The victim’s parents requested the school retain an outside investigator to perform an independent review of its handling of the matter, resulting in a 14-page report from attorney Ellen Coogan.

Coogan called the high school’s investigation “thorough and careful” and said administrators took reasonable steps to ensure the harassment did not continue. She also commended the high school’s efforts to support the victim. But she empathized with the victim’s situation, stating the investigation caused him “great deal of stress.”

“His experience was one that no student should have to endure,” she wrote. “[He] tried to manage the situation. He asked for help from one of the hockey team captains; help was not forthcoming.”

The student eventually transferred from EHS.

Original Stories: https://www.essexreporter.com/parents-of-hazing-victim-sue-district/https://www.essexreporter.com/judge-to-rule-on-records-in-hazing-lawsuit/https://www.essexreporter.com/judge-rules-on-subpoenas-in-hockey-hazing-lawsuit/

5 – Boards dive in to governance work

The third year of the so-called shared services initiative – the effort between selectboard and trustees to slide village services under the town’s purview to create efficiency– found elected officials in agreement that the future of Essex and Essex Jct. should be a single municipality.

And while the last few years have brought about a slew of consolidations or alignments, the governing boards have now set their sights on perhaps the most difficult task of all: Deciding what that potential new government would look like. That work has been sidelined until after budget season.

But the boards did take some steps in 2018 to move the ball downfield. They retained an attorney to serve as a go-to for all governance-related questions and tasked a subcommittee with looking into what options are available.

The boards will now need to figure out how to narrow their options – whether on their own or by some form of public engagement – while hashing out one of the biggest sticking points underlining all potential merger efforts: taxes.

Original Stories: https://www.essexreporter.com/subcommittee-to-study-governance-models/https://www.essexreporter.com/study-to-gauge-future-space-needs-for-depts/https://www.essexreporter.com/capital-committee-considers-new-funding-sources/https://www.essexreporter.com/rec-departments-make-progress-on-co-locating/https://www.essexreporter.com/boards-continue-governance-work/https://www.essexreporter.com/boards-hire-law-firm-for-merger-guidance/

6 – Black Lives Matter flag flies at EWSD

The Black Lives Matter flag flew above several Essex Westford School District campuses this year following a push from members of the student body.

A trio of Westford students petitioned the school board in April, asking to fly the flag above their school. The students – Rosie Whitney, Belle Pitcher and Virginia Cobb – returned two more times over the next month while administrators and school board members worked to come up with a policy detailing how the district will handle all flag requests.

But their perseverance paid off, with the school board unanimously approving the request in May to fly the flag for the remainder of the school year. Less than an hour later, the board approved a similar request from Essex High School students, who proffered a petition signed by more than 400 of their peers.

The proposals sparked some pushback from the community. A few residents decried the BLM movement on social media and chastised the school board for allowing what they view as a political flag to fly at a public school. Some even questioned whether the students understand what BLM stands for.

Those involved with the proposals brushed off those criticisms.

“They learn a college-level chemistry here. They learn Greek philosophy here,” said EHS counselor Andrew Roy, faculty adviser of the diversity club. “So they’re certainly not too young to understand social justice and civil rights issues.”

His students wholeheartedly agreed.

“We go through a lot of things in school, outside of school,” said sophomore Denetra Reeves, who started the high school’s petition and raised the flag. “We learn fast.” Added diversity club member Dominique Sweat, “Youth have the power to create change.”

Original Stories: https://www.essexreporter.com/westford-students-ask-board-raise-black-lives-matter-flag/https://www.essexreporter.com/board-approves-blm-flag-requests/https://www.essexreporter.com/school-board-backs-blm-flag-requests/https://www.essexreporter.com/blm-flag-flies-essex-high-school/

7 – Schools grapple with safety in wake of Parkland

The Black Lives Matter flag flew above several Essex Westford School District campuses this year following a push from members of the student body.

A trio of Westford students petitioned the school board in April, asking to fly the flag above their school. The students – Rosie Whitney, Belle Pitcher and Virginia Cobb – returned two more times over the next month while administrators and school board members worked to come up with a policy detailing how the district will handle all flag requests.

But their perseverance paid off, with the school board unanimously approving the request in May to fly the flag for the remainder of the school year. Less than an hour later, the board approved a similar request from Essex High School students, who proffered a petition signed by more than 400 of their peers.

The proposals sparked some pushback from the community. A few residents decried the BLM movement on social media and chastised the school board for allowing what they view as a political flag to fly at a public school. Some even questioned whether the students understand what BLM stands for.

Those involved with the proposals brushed off those criticisms.

“They learn a college-level chemistry here. They learn Greek philosophy here,” said EHS counselor Andrew Roy, faculty adviser of the diversity club. “So they’re certainly not too young to understand social justice and civil rights issues.”

His students wholeheartedly agreed.

“We go through a lot of things in school, outside of school,” said sophomore Denetra Reeves, who started the high school’s petition and raised the flag. “We learn fast.” Added diversity club member Dominique Sweat, “Youth have the power to create change.”

Original Story: https://www.essexreporter.com/schools-wrestle-with-safety-anxiety-in-wake-of-florida-shooting/

8 – Essex Free Library mourns late director

The Essex Free Library staff and the greater community mourned the loss of its beloved director, Ann Paietta, who died in October at age 61.

Paietta’s friends and family described her as a brilliant, unassuming and clever woman who created a warm and welcoming environment at the library during her six-year tenure there.

To her staff, Paietta’s wit was unmatched. Delivered in the context of her otherwise reserved nature, her quick retorts seemed all the funnier, often leaving the staff in hysterics. “When she looked at me, it would be all over,” said Lorraine Cole-Dolgas, the library’s registrar and circulation clerk.

Time spent working for Paietta led youth librarian Caitlin Corless to question a news story that detailed the amount of laughter the average adult has per day.

“I remember thinking, ‘I laugh way more than this article says.’ I think it was because I had such a funny boss,” Corless said. She initially couldn’t think of any examples, but then, with a mischievous laugh, she clarified, “Or maybe there’s some I shouldn’t share.”

Paietta went out of her way to find a desired book and remembered exactly who wanted what without ever writing it down. She bid each patron the same farewell.

“Take care,” she would say. “Take care.”

She encouraged staff to “have fun,” especially when they were off to some decidedly not-so-fun obligation. Cross, who generally worked on the floor below the front desk, said Corless often came downstairs to share Paietta’s latest antics, which, on rare occasions, were even known to draw an infamous library shush from patrons.

But Paietta took her work seriously, too. She trusted her employees’ judgment. She encouraged them to pursue their own interests, whether that was speaking at a conference or testing out a new program. And she believed in the library’s mission, and the community it called home.

Original Story: https://www.essexreporter.com/essex-free-library-mourns-late-director/

9 – State boards examine doctor and nurse licensure

The Reporter detailed plans among two state licensing boards to require doctors and nurses to undergo criminal background checks before they can practice medicine here in a move to strengthen a system that some say allows unfit candidates to skirt detection.

Our investigation found the Vermont Board of Nursing and the Board of Medical Practice now rely on discipline-tracking databases and self-disclosure. Lying on these applications amounts to felony perjury, which carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison. But discipline records show some take their chances.

A New Hampshire woman received her license from the Vt. Board of Nursing in February 2015, eight years after she was convicted of a felony for forging prescriptions and diverting more than 800 Percocet tablets – a crime she omitted on her application.

Her N.H. license was later suspended after she again allegedly falsified records and diverted pain medication meant for nursing home patients. In its emergency order, the N.H. nursing board said the woman was searching for a job in Vermont.

Doctors aren’t always honest on their applications either. Records show one man lied about being under investigation two weeks after federal agents

searched his home. He later pleaded guilty to a federal drug charge.

The Senate Government Operations Committee expects to look at this issue and others around medical licensing in the upcoming biennium.

Original Story: https://www.essexreporter.com/first-do-no-harm/

10 – Aubuchon Bids Farewell

Residents were saddened to hear news of Aubuchon Hardware’s closing, sharing memories on social media of trips to the store during its more than 50-year run in Essex Jct.

In its place will go Planet Fitness, which plans to bid farewell to its River Rd. gym after more than 10 years there.

The hardware store’s departure came after a prolonged period of flagging sales at the location that decades ago was one the chain’s most profitable stores. But proliferation of so-called box stores eventually brought the store to its knees.

“We’ve tried remodeling the store. We put some good effort into trying to stay here, but it’s just not working,” said Bernard Aubuchon, the company’s executive vice presdent whose grandfather started the

chain of stores in Pittsburgh, Mass. 110 years ago.

Jimmie Keel, the store’s manager, watched a handful of customers wander during one of the store’s last days in business, plucking what they could from the now-barren shelves. The stream remained steady through the weekend, and though Keel managed the store for less than a year, many of those who stopped in knew him by name.

“It hurts to see ‘em,” he said. “I feel like I’m letting ‘em down.”

Original Story: https://www.essexreporter.com/marking-the-end-of-an-era/